Occasionally, the story behind the composition of a masterpiece is so entwined with the notes themselves, that it must be heard alongside the music.
In February of 1935, the American violinist Louis Krasner (who taught the teacher that both of my musician daughters studied with!!!) commissioned Berg to write him a violin concerto. Berg was busy composing his opera, Lulu, but was so broke he felt he could not refuse.
On April 22nd, Manon Gropius -- the 18-year-old daughter of Alma Mahler (who had left her husband, Gustav) and Walter Gropius -- died of poliomyelitis. Berg dedicated the concerto to her -- dem Andenken eines Engels ("In Memory of an Angel").
Berg finished the concerto as a piano score in July and was then stung by an insect at the base of his spine which gradually developed into an abscess. He died of septicaemia on December 23rd.
The piano reduction most likely indicated Berg's intentions vis-a-vis orchestration, but ultimately, the piece had to be carefully reconstructed by Krasner and his associates.
As a young composition student, I found the works of both Schoenberg and Webern to be a bit cold and cerebral. Berg, on the other hand, uses the 12-tone technique in a way that makes his music sound similar to that of Strauss, Wagner or Mahler -- lush, late Romanticism...
After many years of additional study and listening, I came to greatly admire the music of Schoenberg and Webern -- although I still remain deeply attached to the music of Berg -- and this incredible violin concerto, in particular:
If you didn't feel like reading the Wikipedia article, I will make it simple:
A 12-tone row is a series of 12 notes which never repeat.
[Do you have a piano nearby? Go take a look at the number of notes between any given pitch (let's say C in this case) -- from one C to the next C an octave higher, you will play 12 notes: C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A# and B.]
Now most of Schoenberg and Webern's music use this method to avoid having their music sound like normal diatonic music. Take a look at the 12-tone row which governs this concerto:
You will note that no note is repeated, it is a pure row, with 12 different tones.
But unlike his teacher and Webern, Berg uses this row to create a sense of diatonic tonality!
Let's break it down:
Look at the first three notes: G - Bb - D. This form a G Minor chord.
Now, using the last note of the previous chord (D), add the next two notes: F# and A. This creates a D Major chord!
Using the same reasoning, the next grouping is A - C - E, an A Minor chord.
And finally a third grouping of E - G# - B, an E Major chord.
The final three notes are: C# - Eb - F. Ignore the fact that the enharmonic spelling looks funny -- these last three notes are all a Major Second apart.
They are used to outline the first three notes of the Bach Chorale, Es ist genug ("It Is Enough") from his cantata, O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort ("O Eternity, thy Word of Thunder), BWV 60, which is introduced towards the end of the concerto.
Without further ado, head to Amazon or wherever you buy your music, and consider one of the following:
Unbelievable! Sophie-Mutter is one of the greatest violinists of our (or perhaps any other) time. Her take on this is lush and romantic (as it should be!), but also extremely sensitive for all those little details. She never plays with the kind of bravura that some violinists use -- instead she makes her tone float just above the accomaniment -- and even manages to stay there, sounding crisp and vibrant, in those incredible sections where the orchestra just cuts loose. One of the best!
Terrific. Perhaps more subdued than Mutter/Levine, but also makes the little details come alive.
I love Hope's sound. Some of the orchestral playing has a few weak spots.
The first recording and only the second performance ever. Berg never lived to even hear the first performance. Other than the fact that this recording sounds as if it was made in a small bathroom, it is extremely valuable, historically. You can tell that Krasner was deeply moved by the results of his commission.
This is the recording I grew up and remains my favorite to this day. Markevitch (a Boulanger student!) handles the Concertgebouw with careful balance and Grumiaux is absolutely exquisite!
A personal postscript about these posts:
In putting together a list of my seven most important compositions (in chronological order), I came to this 6th post with a great deal of indecision.
There were two compositions written in the year 1935 that are extremely important to me. I had to choose, and since no 12-tone music was represented (tomorrow's post features some 12-tone writing, but is not purely a 12-tone composition!), I felt inclined to choose this piece.
After you read about it, check out one of these:
This was the first American recording, released when I was 13! Astonishing sonics!